Some actors have movie careers that last for decades, overcoming changes in taste, advancing age, and other personal and professional setbacks. Others make a splash for a while and then are gone for good, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Smart choices, the ability to roll with the punches and determination account for part of this, but as in all aspects of life, a lot of it is luck.
Mickey Rooney's career lasted about 90 years, on stage, television and film. He began in films as a child actor in the silent era at the age of six and kept working - radio, films, stage, TV - until the end of his life. He was a big star in the 1930s and 40s but his career was more uneven after World War II, made worse by various personal problems (addictions, heavy gambling, multiple divorces). The ongoing need for money was one reason he kept working: he was in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), released the year he died and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2017), which came out posthumously.
Another star with a long career is Angela Lansbury, who received an Oscar nomination for her film debut in Gaslight (1944) and is, at the time of writing, still working at the age of 94. She also had hits on stage including Mame and starred in the longrunning TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96). Lansbury wasn't always in leads and tended to look older than she was - born in 1928, she played, brilliantly, the mother of Laurence Harvey (born in 1925) in The Manchuarian Candidate (1962).
It isn't always the most famous actors who last the longest. Barbara Perry, who died in 2019 at the age of 97, had a long but relatively obscure film career, mostly in small roles, from 1933 to 2017. Norman Lloyd was also a stayer: still alive at the time of writing at the age of 106, he began his movie career in 1942 in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur and ended it in 2015 with Trainwreck. He also featured on stage and in radio and had a long career in various production capacities.
Jack Totheroh is a bit of a cheat: he appeared in The Bachelor's Baby (1915) and and another short in 1922 and then turned up 70 years later in Chaplin (1992) and Weekend King in 2007, so his films were few but spaced far apart.
Prolific character actor John Carradine began his film career in the early 1930s and worked on more than 230 films, ranging from classics such as Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to schlockier efforts such as Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966). He died in 1988: his two last credits, Buried Alive (1990) and Jack-O (1995), were released posthumously. Carradine was a busy man: he also worked in theatre and television.
A lot of child actors, of course, don't maintain their stardom - some, like Peter Ostrum and Shirley Temple, bow out gracefully, others keep struggling to maintain their careers, sometimes ending tragically. Elizabeth Taylor and Jodie Foster are two who became even bigger stars as adults - and both won two Oscars.
Other stars who have stayed at the top for a long time include Clint Eastwood, who had bit parts from 1955, a lead role in the TV series Rawhide which began in 1959, and the lead in the classic spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). From there his career just got bigger - Coogan's Bluff, Dirty Harry, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby are just some of his films (he won Oscars for directing the last two). He's still going at the age of 90 as an actor and director with another film, Cry Macho, in post-production.
Katharine Hepburn was a star to reckon with for 62 years from her debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) to her final film, Love Affair (1994): apparently Warren Beatty talked her into appearing in the latter. She won a record four acting Oscars, all for best actress. And Bette Davis began in 1931, became a true star by 1934 in Of Human Bondage, won two Oscars, and worked until her death in 1989. One of her last films was The Whales of August (1987) in which she appeared with another screen legend, Lillian Gish, whose film career went back to 1912 and who died in 1993 at the age of 99.
Some quit while still in demand: Cary Grant had more than three decades of stardom before retiring from the screen in 1966: he had later offers but declined them all. Olivia de Havilland began in 1935 and was one of the big names in her final theatrical film, The Swarm (1978). She continued to work, making TV movies, until 1988. No doubt both could have worked longer.
Some have short but memorable careers.
Maria Falconetti is best remembered for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), her last film: she was in one other feature and a short released in 1917. Harold Russell - who lost his hands in an explosion while training paratroopers in World War II and learned to use hooks - is another interesting case. A non-actor, he was cast in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) as a returning soldier and won two Oscars - best supporting actor and an honorary award for bringing hope and courage to other veterans. His next movie was Inside Moves (1980) and he appeared in a couple of TV roles and one more movie, Dogtown (1997), before his death in 2002. And John Cazale made only five films in the 1970s but all were memorable - the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and finally The Deer Hunter, the last made while he was suffering from the cancer that killed him shortly after filming ended.
An even briefer acting career - and in a lead role - was that of child actor Peter Ostrum, whose only film was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). He played Charlie in this adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was a flop on initial release but is now a cult film. Ostrum decided not to pursue acting and became a veterinarian.